ALAMEDA COUNTY BOARD OF SUPERVISORS | During one of the most heartbreaking, riveting and longest Alameda County Board of Supervisors meetings in recent memory, a long-discussed proposal to approve the early stages of a court-ordered treatment program for the mentally ill, was put on hold Tuesday after over five hours of testimony and clear signs of division among the normally staid board.
Numerous speakers passionately urged for and against the controversial program some deride as a violation of civil rights and others view as a last resort for loved ones who repeatedly neglect treatment for their mental illness. A state law dubbed Laura’s Law (also referred to as AB 1421 by county officials) gives counties the authority to create a program that uses the courts to force chronically non-compliant patients into outpatient care.
The proposal sought to create a one-year pilot program comprised of up to five patients and estimated to cost around $225,000 for treatment and legal fees. “It is not a panacea," said Alameda County Healthcare Services Director Alex Briscoe. "It is for a small number of patients who are deteriorating currently and who we believe cannot maintain safety right now."
The impetus for the county’s push for opting-in to Laura’s Law started over two years ago with the murder of Berkeley resident Peter Cukor by Daniel DeWitt, a mentally ill young man who routinely resisted help for his condition. His parents, Al and Candy DeWitt, say Laura’s Law would have saved both their son and Cukor. The couple have since become one of the leading advocates for Laura’s Law.
They argue the program is a kinder tool for mental health experts to administer care, rather than the sometime combative scenarios when a person is deemed a danger themselves and must be restrained and incarcerated. “I once witnessed my son being forcefully held against his will,” said Al DeWitt. “It was horrible and painful to watch.” His wife urged opponents of Laura’s Law not to look at them as adversaries. “Nobody is more on your side than us,” said Candy DeWitt as she turned to the audience.
Alameda County Healthcare Services has been honing the county’s iteration of Laura's Law for much of the past year. Many well-attended public meeting have occurred since. Over the span of the discussion, the plan’s likelihood of being approved by the Board of Supervisors has gone from unlikely to likely and back. At Tuesday’s meeting, Supervisors Scott Haggerty, Richard Valle and Keith Carson voiced skepticism whether the county’s proposal, as it stands, is well-conceived. (Carson, Haggerty, Valle voted to continue the discussion; Chan voted no; Miley abstained.) Haggerty said he was torn between both sides of the argument. “What if we get it wrong, I keep thinking that. What happens?” he said. “Laura’s law might get you there. But I keep thinking, ‘Can we be more passionate in Alameda County?’” Haggerty later told Briscoe, “We can do better, Alex.”
Tuesday’s agenda item simply asked the Board of Supervisors for the go-ahead to begin fleshing out a specific proposal based on Laura’s Law. Valle, however, worried the issue had created divisions among the board and the community. “There’s nothing for me to vote on that says this model works,” said Valle, who urged for a public meeting in his south county district. The proposal also failed to take into account the county’s unique gender, age and cultural differences, he said. “It has to be different because this is Alameda County.”
Carson, too, voiced support for furthering the discussion in hopes of creating, what he called, an “Alameda County model” that may perform a similar functions to Laura’s Law. Supervisor Wilma Chan, one of the main backers of Laura Law’s in the county, however, urged for a vote Tuesday, but was also amendable to additional dialogue on the subject, she said. Supervisor Nate Miley, another proponent, sensed the board was divided and huffily proposed using his own Oakland-centric district for the pilot, while contended his colleagues were “afraid” to make a decision on Laura’s Law. “Implement it in my district. Let me be the guinea pig for the five,” he declared after noting having no personal experience with the mentally ill. The comments set off Carson, who described his own history with a mentally ill family member and peppered his remarks with language rarely heard in the supervisor’s chambers.
“I have personally seen that person restrained. I have personally seen that person force-fed medication. I personally continue to live with that person’s disability and so this is not something I have read about,” said Carson. He later sniped at Chan. Studying the issue for another three months might allow for an even better program for all sides of the mental health question, he urged. “That’s for all the other people who don’t have the advocacy. They don’t have the people that can help them."